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2021 BC Culture Days Ambassadors

Alyssa Amarshi - Having parents from Tanzania, and of Indo-Ismaili heritage, Alyssa has always been interested in diverse types of cultural expression, especially movement and intermodal art. Her passion for performing and expressing grew while she was working with Bollywood dance companies as a preteen. In high school, her friends from the West Indies exposed her to Dancehall and STEP (a form of percussive dance), both of which she continued to explore while completing her BA in Psychology at McGill University. After moving to Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) lands (colonially known as Vancouver), she trained with SOULdiers Dance Company and Ketch Di Vybz where she further fortified her understanding in street dance and love of Dancehall. With mentors who fostered her immense passion and compassion, she went on to grace the stage with award-winning artists such as A Tribe Called Red, Kimmortal, and Nanya Music; move audiences through performances with her collective Her Tribal Roots; and develop choreography and creative direction for artists and festivals all over the lower mainland. Alyssa has also sat on panels for the City of Vancouver and the Reach Gallery. She is a proud facilitator and pioneer of the community based interdisciplinary play sessions, Jungle Gym Drop-Ins. Her vision, through her collective “Her Tribal Roots” is to create more opportunities for artistic expression of diversity, inclusion, and resiliency, rooted in symbiotic collaboration, empathy, and compassion.

Culture Days Event: Alyssa hosted Jam Out! With Her Tribal Roots, which took place on September 27, 2021 at Trout Lake Park in Vancouver. Alyssa and Her Tribal Roots showcased an excerpt of their work in progress Living With. They also facilitated a couple of music jams and movement exercises where participants were encouraged to engage different ways of co-creating.

Mentor: Dancer, choreographer, and dance educator, Cristina Bucci.

Pronouns: she/her
INSTAGRAM: @alyssamarshi @hertribalroots
FACEBOOK: Alyssa Amarshi, Her Tribal Roots
YOUTUBE: Her Tribal Roots
Photo credit: Richie Lubaton

Valeria Ascolese is a Peruvian-Italian multidisciplinary artist and educator born in Lima, Peru. A graduate of Capilano University, she has collaborated with theatre companies like Electric Company Theatre, Rumble Theatre, Bard on the Beach, rice&beans theatre and Pacific Theatre, while simultaneously working in film and TV. As a teaching artist she works at Bard on the Beach, Carousel Theatre for Young People, Lights Up Musical Theatre Schools, North Van Arts and other drama schools across the city and internationally. In addition, she is the Communications and Outreach Coordinator at the Canadian Latinx Theatre Artist Coalition (CALTAC), an organization that advocates for and connects Latinx theatre artists in Canada. Valeria focuses on making art accessible to everyone and anyone by bridging her cultures, languages and identity into the work.

Culture Days Event: Valeria produced the online video and discussion series Where Do We Go From Here? Conversations about the Future of Performance, an exploration of the impact and aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic on the artistic performance sector seen through the eyes of emerging artists based in British Columbia.

Mentor: Multi-award-winning playwright, director, dramaturge, translator, and teacher, Guillermo Verdecchia.

Impact Statement: “Since being a BC Culture Days ambassador, I’ve had the opportunity to lead and facilitate more community events locally and internationally. I’ve felt confident and determined in organizing events that will give my community an opportunity to connect and give back to them. The BC Culture Days Ambassador Program gave me the invaluable tools that I needed to be comfortable leading and setting up my own initiatives, and made me fall in love with outreach and connecting with others. Most recently, I was invited to the ASO Mass Cultural Conference in Toronto through the advocacy work I do for the Canadian Latinx Theatre Artist Coalition to talk and dream about the future of the Canadian arts sector. It was such a special experience, first of its kind for me, as a community activist.”

Pronouns: she/her
INSTAGRAM: @valeria.ascolese
YOUTUBE: Valeria Ascolese

Jean Baptiste, Kihêw Mahihkan Âtayôhkan Iskwêw, is a nonbinary Two-Spirit member of the Wet’suwet’en nation in the Laksilyu clan. Since they were a child, they have been on a journey of exploring their passion of storytelling through various mediums. In 2018, they started learning beading through two close friends and mentors. This has evolved into incorporating traditional Indigenous mediums with contemporary mixed media. They have also explored poetry, spoken word, draglesque and other embodied forms of expression. Recently they were included in the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective’s 2020 publication: The Knowledge Within Us. Jean has also consistently presented at the annual Utloo’ Noye Khunni: Weaving Words Celebration in Prince George. They hosted panels as well as shared poetry and spoken word pieces exploring Indigeneity, gender identity, queerness and sharing northern stories. Jean also has participated as a draglesque performer at an IndigiQueer Cabaret (2020) hosted by Gwandaak Theatre (Whitehorse, Yukon) in partnership with Yukon Pride. Each piece of art they produce is grounded out of their experiences consciously delving into their relationship with their body, community, history, and self-identity.

Culture Days Event: Jean hosted the event Medicine Pouch Making at the Omineca Arts Centre in Prince George. Participants were invited to create medicine pouches and discuss what types of medicines they use and how it relates to their resiliency.

Mentor: Multidisciplinary artist, educator, and mother, Jennifer Pighin.

Impact Statement: “My time working with Jennifer Pighin was incredibly humbling and fulfilling. Through the mentorship program, Jen helped me set up my first exhibition Thirst Nation: Sovereignty & Dissent, which is a feat I had never dreamed of achieving. The technical process of understanding how to set up everything…was a perspective I never truly had to understand before. At the beginning of my time with Jen, she invited me to witness the Northern BC Bus Indigenous Artist call where Indigenous artists submitted designs to be showcased on buses used in the north. Jen had walked me through the process and directed me to some resources, and I saw it all in action when people were deliberating on which designs to choose. Little did I know this would be my most utilized skillset in the upcoming years! In my current corporate job, I’ve led out several artist calls seeking Indigenous art for various projects and mentored other employees on how to equitably host call outs or contests so the process is both fair and profitable for Indigenous artists. Without my time with Jen, I would have never been able to bridge both my corporate day job with my passion for art and creating opportunities for other artists.”

Pronouns: they/them
INSTAGRAM: @kihewdesigns

August Bramhoff is a visual artist who works and lives in the Vancouver area. After a traumatic brain injury in 2013, they started the process of re-learning and adapting to being a working artist living with a disability. Their primary focus is film photography, with an emphasis on street photography and editorial shoots.

After a showing of their photography in 2019 at the East Vancouver Cultural Centre, aka The Cultch, August was introduced to the Kickstart Disability Arts and Culture team, which ignited a passion for universal inclusion in the arts. “Being told that you cannot, it is not possible, or just plainly not considered, eats away at your self worth. I discovered that not only is it (inclusion in the arts) possible, it’s practical, uncomplicated, and allows artists to feel included in their community. I’m an advocate for universal access.”

August is thrilled to be working with the BC Culture Days team to present their project to the community. “I feel very grateful for the help and opportunities I have received. To be able to give a little of that back makes me happy.”

Culture Days Event: August presented an online art exhibition called Our First Conversation. The exhibit featured British Columbian artists belonging to under-represented communities in B.C., such as the Disability community, the BIPOC community, the alternative religious community (Wicca), the Jewish Community, and the LGTBQIA2S+ community.

Mentor: Yuri Arajs, a working artist who has dedicated much of his practice to advocating for fellow artists, including artists who live with a disability.

Impact Statement: “Being part of the BC Culture Days Ambassador Program has made a lasting positive change in my creative career. Taking part in the mentorship with Yuri Arajs provided me with skills, knowledge, and insights into the Arts and Culture scene in Vancouver that I could not have otherwise gained. My time in creating and curating my project under the ambassadorship increased my self-awareness, helping me to define what areas of my working life needed support. Knowing my limitations and challenges are keys to my success as a working artist…I was also afforded through the mentorship a sense of importance for inclusivity in the arts. Now that I find myself working in environments that are not designed with artists with disabilities in mind, I am advocating for others, and starting conversations with arts organizations towards positive changes. Furthermore, I have also been able to assist other arts organizations in their accessibility audits and goals due to my work with BC Culture Days.”

Pronouns: they/them

Jeni Chen is an artist, picture book author, and illustrator. She was born in Taiwan and moved to Canada with her family when she was a teenager. She has always loved to draw but stopped when she decided to pursue a more “practical” career in science. After the birth of her son, Jeni started drawing comics about the funny things her son said or did. She also began reading lots of picture books and got an idea for writing and illustrating her own. She had so much fun drawing and taking art classes that she obtained a fine art certificate from Emily Carr University of Art + Design.

Since then, she has been selected for several public art programs in Richmond and the upcoming Vancouver Comic Arts Festival.

Her debut picture book about a boy who loves to paint, but loses the colour in his life when he stops, has been acquired by a US publisher and will be released in spring 2022.

When she came across the works of Sir Ken Robinson (his “Do Schools Kill Creativity” was the most watched Ted Talk of all time), she realized that she’s been educated to choose practicality over creativity. Ken Robison said: “Creativity now is as important in education as literacy;” therefore, she has made it her goal to contribute to the community by promoting creativity through art, especially for the younger generations.

Culture Days Event: Jeni created a 37-minute online video called Art Journaling for Beginners to show Culture Days participants how to use the mediums of drawing, writing, and collage in art journaling. She also held an in-person event at the Richmond Cultural Centre on September 25, bringing her supplies and materials for the public to try their hands at journaling.

Mentor: Visual artist, Natasha Smith.

Impact Statement: “Being an ambassador and holding community-engaged workshops gave me the experience and confidence to do more workshops both in-person and online. As a result of the exposure I got as an ambassador, I was contacted by different organizations to hold workshops for the public. The connections I made during the time as an ambassador remain valuable. For example, when I was working on my project for the CreateSpace Public Art Residency this year, I knew who I could contact in my community to get the ball rolling. The PR tactics I learned as an ambassador helped me promote my picture book, which was published in April this year. I learned how to contact the media and get more exposure for the book. My mentor, Natasha, showed me how to make online videos, and she helped me successfully apply to ArtStart’s Artists in the Classroom grant. The experience of working with kids in the classroom and online prepared me for doing multiple school visits this year in the US, Richmond, and Vancouver. I am selected as a virtual touring presenter for 2023 Canadian Children’s Book Week. The positive impact of being a BC Culture Days ambassador is profound. The seed planted during my time as an ambassador just keeps growing. Thank you, ambassador program!”

Pronouns: she/her
TWITTER: @JeniChenArt

Carter Kirilenko is a documentary film-maker, director and producer based in Vancouver whose work focuses on environmental issues - most notably the intersection between climate change and human health. Carter graduated from the University of Waterloo with a Honours Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies (Environment & Business), where he also completed a research term at National University of Singapore’s Institute of Systems Science. Over the course of his degree, he lived in four continents while working to drive forward environmental sustainability for companies such as Microsoft, PepsiCo and Sun Exchange. Carter’s film portfolio spans across documentary, fashion, and music videos. His first documentary In Your Palm, which reveals the link between Indonesia’s haze crisis and the expansion of palm oil, received awards at festivals across North America, including “Best International Film” at Oregon Documentary Film Festival. His latest film Leuser: The Last Place on Earth received the Peoples Choice Award at VIMFF and follows a team of rangers that are protecting one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. Carter aims to use film as a medium to communicate science based solutions to climate change.

Culture Days Event At his event Climate Solutions Film Festival, Carter premiered his film Salmon Parks, a documentary exploring an Indigenous-led resource management plan to restore key watersheds and wild salmon in the traditional territories of Mowachaht/Muchalaht and Nuchatlaht First Nations. The film festival included a virtual screening of the film, followed by a moderated panel discussion with Indigenous leaders from Nuu-Chah-Nulth territory.

Mentor: Photographer and filmmaker, Jason van Bruggen.

Impact Statement: “The BC Culture Days Ambassador Program enabled me to experiment with telling new stories within my community while growing my confidence as an independent filmmaker. During my time as an ambassador, I created a film called “Salmon Parks,” which explores how large-scale industrial logging of old growth forests is resulting in declining wild salmon populations on the west coast of British Columbia. Through this story, I started my own personal first-hand journey of learning about the impact of colonial and capitalist systems on Indigenous rights, and how undoing these systems can help build a more just, regenerative, and sustainable future. Since making this film, these learnings have shaped which stories I focus on, and instilled a desire to continue to learn how filmmaking can help play a role in supporting the work of Indigenous communities in their efforts to restore and preserve both culture and the environment. The creation of this film also helped me to gain access to new storytelling opportunities, such as directing a new conservation series with the South Africa-based production company, ReWild Africa. The series explores the stories of six underrepresented conservationists in their journey to protect and restore ecosystems around the globe. My mentor, Jason van Bruggen, taught me many important lessons along the way, such as the importance of having candor throughout the creative process, committing to and executing on deadlines, and following our passion — all of which I try my best to prioritize in my career today.”

Pronouns: he/him
INSTAGRAM: @carterkirilenko
FACEBOOK: Carter Kirilenko

Tara Rajah is a classically trained cellist with a practice that includes experimental music and community-engaged performance. She attained her BMus from the University of Victoria in 2019 under the tutelage of Pamela Highbaugh Aloni and the Lafayette String Quartet. She has experience in various chamber and orchestral groups and is currently a member of the Harmonia Chamber Orchestra in Vancouver. She has performed with the Koboi Project at the Courtyard Hiroo Gallery, Tokyo and at the Burning Man Festival, Blackrock City, Nevada. She has a long-standing relationship with the performance group Foolish Operations with which she has worked on various community-engaged art projects including the long-running Tricoter series and the newly developed Moving, Resting, Nesting project. She is committed to the use of music to explore creativity in both adults and children in diverse settings and believes in sharing her passion for multidisciplinary musical engagement with a wide public.

Culture Days Event: Tara presented Environmental Vibrations, a community-engaged performance work that explores the idea of home in the context of the global movement of peoples. Environmental Vibrations was composed and choreographed in collaboration with dancer Kira Radosevic and took place at the Port Coquitlam Community Centre as a part of the larger community engaged event by Foolish Operations titled Moving, Resting, Nesting.

Mentor: Choreographer invested in community engaged dance and in interactions between public space and community, Julie Lebel.

Impact Statement: “The BC Culture Days Ambassador Program showed me how important it is for an emerging artist to engage with the wider community and reinforced my passion for sharing my creativity with others. I have continued to collaborate with my mentor, Julie Lebel, and her community oriented performance group, Foolish Operations. In the summer, I presented Environmental Vibrations at the Stampede Festival in Victoria BC. My collaborator Kira Radosevic and I did a total of around 30 performances over the weekend of the event. At the end of the summer, I completed my Bachelors of Education at UBC. Throughout my degree and practicum, I was able to take what I learned from the program and my mentorship and apply it to the classroom to foster a more engaging and creative space. More recently, I have been offered a teaching position in an elementary school in London, England. I am excited to go and explore the diverse arts and cultural scene. I am grateful for the connections and the insight the BC Culture Days ambassador and mentorship program have given me and look forward to continuing to share what I have learnt with others!”

Pronouns: she/her

Laura Rechwan is a Lebanese-Canadian artist and cultural ambassador who believes in the transformative power of creativity. She currently lives in Victoria, BC. Rechwan holds a Bachelor of Commerce Degree in Entrepreneurial Management from Royal Roads University, studied studio arts at Concordia University in Montreal, and holds a Visual Arts Diploma from Camosun College.

Her emerging studio art practice uses many mediums to explore the unseen forces and intangible energies that surround everyday life. Play and experimentation are key to her artistic process and she often incorporates repurposed materials into her work. From welding to ceramics and every material in between, her work has been exhibited at the Sooke Fine Arts Show, Open Space Gallery, and has been selected for a public installation with the City of Victoria in Winter 2021. Rechwan pursues her own creative inspirations and also creates work by custom commission.

She is passionate about bringing creativity to the community and has received multiple grants and awards for leading arts-based workshops and outreach activities. She worked for five years as a manager at the non-profit Coast Collective Art Centre in Victoria, BC, and loves to connect and create opportunities with other artists and practitioners. She believes that the arts have a great healing power and uses her entrepreneurial and artistic background to add value to her community through creative opportunities.

Culture Days Event: The INTERCHANGE Online Art Exhibition brought together creators from different disciplines (artists and writers) to participate in an online gallery exhibition where creators submitted works in response to each other.

Mentor: Scultpure artist, Jock Hildebrand.

Impact Statement: “I can’t believe it has already been a year since my time as a BC Culture Days ambassador! The mentorship which I received has inspired me to pursue new career paths. After gaining a better understanding of my mentor’s processes, I see my practice differently — blending my studio art practice with the organization of events instead of separating them. This shift in perspective has inspired me to take on new projects. Being an ambassador for my local community inspired me to form a new connection and stronger sense of place. As a result of this, I have recently been selected as an artist-in-residence further exploring these concepts.”

Pronouns: she/her
INSTAGRAM: @LauraRechwan.Art
FACEBOOK: @LauraRechwan.Art

Kenthen Thomas is a member of the Secwepemc Nation in Salmon Arm, BC. Kenthen’s acting bug started in high school, where he helped in roles such as Romeo and Juliet and many others throughout his life. When Kenthen finished high school, he began on the path to becoming a storyteller. Working with and being trained by such groups as Secwepemc Native Theatre, Senclip Native Theatre and Caravan Farm Theatre, he developed his craft. This was in part to many mentors, teachers and elders.

Afterwards, as an individual performer he was asked to perform all over BC, as well as other parts of the world, including performing onstage in New Zealand and Australia. Lately, he has been all over Western Canada sharing the stories of the Secwepemulucw ancestors in public schools, higher education facilities and for anyone who will share the stories.

Currently, he is a qualified teacher working at a tiny elementary school called Shihiya Elementary in Splatsin Nation. He also works hard to infuse and integrate Indigeneity into the educational system of both public and post-secondary institutions.

Culture Days Event Kenthen showcased the beauty of storytelling through stories called Stepetkwll or Legends That Teach. He took the words of his ancestors and shared them thousands of years later in hopes that, through the stories, audiences would see their connection to the earth, the beauty of language, the beauty of life and human connectivity.

Mentor: Educator, arist, story-teller, and author, Dr. Billy Cohen.

Impact Statement: “The BC Culture Days Ambassador Program has encouraged me to follow through on bigger projects such as a “Storytelling Workshop for Youth,” province wide. It has given me courage to write original pieces of work to be showcased in the future. The experience also gave me the desire to work or collaborate with others on their own pieces. Inspiration drawn from my mentorship has led me to apply for and be accepted into a masters program at UBC Vancouver, with my mentor being one of my references. I have been collaborating with local school districts to teach not only the students about storytelling but the teachers as well. The teachers look to teach the stories and infuse and integrate the stories into their curriculum.”

Pronouns: he/him
INSTAGRAM: @kenthen1
FACEBOOK: Kenthen H Thomas